In On & Between, composer and pianist Zhen Chen weaves the musical tale of a Chinese immigrant newly arrived in America. Employing conservative tonal language and instrumentation (except for the pipa, the Chinese lute), the work deftly demonstrates Chen’s bicultural sensibility.
In a recent China Daily.com.cn interview, pipa soloist Lin Ma outlined the work’s narrative. “The pipa is the main character [threading] through the whole album,” Ma explained. “It stands for a Chinese girl who just came to New York City. She wandered, struggled and went through phases of growth. After years, she finally gained a foothold in the new land.” It sounds quite cinematic, and the music would be effective at the movies.
Several times in the suite Chen quotes the well-known English horn melody from Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 “From the New World” (1893), composed while Dvořák worked in the USA. In 1922 it was adapted for the song Goin’ Home by Dvořák pupil William Arms Fisher. For Chen it represents the “respect and sense of promise the United States [has] in the hearts of new immigrants.”
It’s interesting to note that Chen’s setting of the melody owes as much to neo-Romantic 20th-century Chinese patriotic compositions for Western orchestra such as the Yellow River Piano Concerto, as much as it does to Fisher’s song with lyrics cast in dialect and Dvořák’s original setting.
Then there’s my favourite track, Cocktails. It features just Ma’s cantabile pipa playing and Chen’s grand piano, effectively evoking a sophisticated, languid hybrid pipa-spiked-lounge jazz-meets-Satie atmosphere.